Gradual democracy

The transition from dictatorship to civilian rule is an admirable goal. But rushing into elections might make Egypt’s first free vote its last.

Woman shows inked finger after voting in Egypt 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Woman shows inked finger after voting in Egypt 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Over the weekend, ahead of the first round of parliamentary elections slated for next Monday, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians packed Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It seemed a sterling example of positive democratic forces pushing back against an evil military junta vying to retain control. The multitudes who took to the streets were, after all, demanding their right to democratic representation in free and open elections.
Protesters criticized the Supreme Council of Armed Force (SCAF) for delaying the transfer of power to the people. SCAF, which took over in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February, originally pledged to give control to civilians by September. Now it says a presidential election will not take place before 2013. And last week SCAF laid out a blueprint for the next constitution, giving the military special political powers and protection from civilian oversight. Outraged, Egyptians returned to Tahrir Square in numbers not seen since July.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has come out publicly on the side of the people. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned the military junta of the dangers of preventing the transition to democracy.
“If, over time, the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials, they will have planted the seeds for future unrest, and Egyptians will have missed a historic opportunity,” Clinton said.
But is Egypt’s headlong rush for democratic elections an “historic opportunity?” Will it lead to more stability in the region? Will it advance women’s rights or the rights of minorities such as the Copts? We understand the US’s delicate position.
The Obama administration does not want to be perceived as an opponent of democractic rule. After propping up dictators throughout the region, including in Egypt, the US hopes to improve its standing on the Arab street by supporting Egyptians’ yearning for freedom.
More fundamentally, championing democracy and civilian rule against an autocratic military regime resonates deeply with Americans.
Unfortunately, the choice is not between a military junta and a democracy that will champion human rights, protect minorities and women and uphold freedom of the press. Through its Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to win a major role in the country’s parliament and become the biggest political counterweight to the military junta.
This has major negative consequences not only for Egyptian society but also for US interests. It is not at all clear that the $1.3 billion in aid that Washington provides each year will continue to give it influence over Cairo. The fate of Egypt’s cold peace with Israel will be uncertain. And the rise of an Islamist, anti-Israeli leadership in Egypt will likely further embolden terrorists in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
In the name of democracy and in violation of the Oslo Accords, the Bush administration insisted that Hamas be allowed to participate in the 2006 Palestinian elections. This led not to the creation of a democratic regime, but to the establishment of an Islamist terror base bent on the destruction of Israel. This is hardly a reassuring precedent.
Parliamentary elections are now unavoidable, regardless of whether they are advisable. But perhaps time still remains to help ensure that Egypt’s transition from dictatorship to popular rule does not deteriorate into the creation of another tyrannical Islamist regime.
Instead of opposing a delay in presidential elections, the Obama administration might support it. If the junta is allowed to hold on to executive powers until April 2013, the newly elected Egyptian parliament, via a 100- member Constituent Assembly, could in the interim hammer out a constitution that includes elements that protect human rights and basic freedoms, and prevents discrimination against minorities and women.
The junta for its part must give up its unreasonable demands for veto power over any text drafted and the right to dissolve the assembly.
The transition from dictatorship to civilian rule is an admirable goal. But bowing to the populist cry from Tahrir Square and rushing into “democratic elections” is liable to make Egypt’s first free and open vote its last.